iCommons for beginners

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
19 June 2006

Tony Curzon Price, Becky Hogge and Sam Howard Spink are blogging from the iCommons iSummit in Rio this weekend, 23-25 June 2006

Creative Commons
Creative Commons is an American charity founded by the radical libertarian legal scholar, Lawrence Lessig. Its aim is to help cultural creators give up some of their copyrights by creating the required legal framework of licenses. Why would a cultural creator do that? Because spreading a message, establishing and nourishing a reputation, having an audience, participating in the commonwealth of cultural production, may all be more important than the elusive royalty stream.

Business models for Creative Commons are still in their infancy, but there are proofs by existence. For example, this page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No-Derivatives license (ANoCNoD). It allows anyone to copy this page for Non-Commercial purposes; it does not allow "derivatives" – or "remixes" – and it grants these rights as long as we continue to be attributed as authors. Without the Creative Commons license in place, our default copyright as authors would be much more restrictive.

iCommons is an international organisation that has grown out of the Creative Commons movement. Its purpose, according to Lessig, goes "beyond the infrastructure that Creative Commons is building" and is about developing a "global commons". How this will be achieved is high on the agenda at this year's iSummit in Rio de Janeiro.

This is the practice of taking a song and casting it in a new genre – negro-spiritual hymn becomes thrash metal scream, Dread Zeppelin plays reggae versions of Stairway to Heaven...

It's not just music. French dramatist Jean Racine is one of the great literary remixers; by taking Euripides' Hippolytus and turning it into his Phèdre, he transforms a classical obsession with fate into a modern reflection on the conflict of duty and passion. Francis Bacon's Triptychs and Vikram Chandra's stories in Love and Longing in Bombay are also remixes, relying on our understanding of their predecessors for their full force.

In pop culture, a voice track is combined from one song with an instrument track from another to create a new (possibly aesthetic) third (see Frank Zappa's Xenochronies). In web culture, mashup is when the services from different internet sites are combined. For example, dudewheresmyusedcar allows me to find and map Aston Martins on auction in Silicon Valley by combining eBay auctions and Google maps.

Other traditions have been "mashing-up" for a while: musical variations, like Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Shakespeare's historical borrowings, James Joyce's knowing parodies, post modernists' clever architectural allusions. Fusion cooking – bangers and mash with coulis au curry – brings the mash-up full circle.

Left to right: From Boccaccio's Decameron, to the Arabian Nights, to Vikram Chandra's classical-inspired Love and Longing in Bombay

From the Hawaiian wiki wiki (quick), this has come to mean a web page that can freely, easily and quickly be changed and edited by all comers. Wikipedia, the collaboratively created encyclopedia, is the most well-known example of a wiki. If the history of ideas is a conversation with the thinkers and authors who have preceded us, then the wiki is just a new support for it; the branching and revision histories are electronic traces of the complexities of the tree of human understanding.

Computer code that is free from copyright or patent restrictions. Microsoft and Apple use all the tools of Intellectual Property protection to run their businesses: copyright stops software duplication, patent restricts competitors, and software is delivered in a humanly-unreadable form, adding Trade Secret to the battery of protection. The OpenSource movement aims to liberate software code from most of these restrictions and their effects. The amorphous movement has created a body of computer programs, some of which are now essential parts of the Internet's infrastructure.

A lot of the work that goes into OpenSource is voluntary, though it does receive some academic or philanthropy-funding, and is also supported by companies such as IBM and Google. OpenSource is now enough of a threat to companies like Microsoft that Bill Gates felt obliged to try pushing some old Cold War patriotic buttons by lashing out at the "hippies and communists" the movement relies on. Microsoft has encouraged companies like SCO in their high-drama attempts to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) over the commercial use of OpenSource code.

Richard Stallman

If the charming Linus Torvald, creator of Linux (popular alternative to Windows) is the poster boy of OpenSource, then the austere Richard Stallman, through the Free Software Foundation, is high priest and philosophical guardian of the ideal of Free Code.

GNU General Public License (GPL)
The GPL is the license under which much OpenSource code is distributed. It enshrines the idea that computer code, like speech, should be free to be copied, interpreted, modified and generally mashed-up. The license is viral in the sense that it requires any code based on GPL and distributed must itself also be GPL-licensed.

Therefore, if a commercial project takes advantage of "free" GPL code – often an attractive and time-saving option for a company – then it will have to release modifications of the code under the GPL.

For the curious, GNU stands for "GNU Not Unix". A computer programmers' joke (Richard Stallman's choice), it is a recursive acronym – of the type popularised by Douglas Hofstader in Godel, Escher and Bach.

What has all this to do with culture?

Calvinists in Geneva do not go to church on Sunday, they go to the "Cult": the place in which the community comes together to renew common understanding of all that is profoundly shared. Culture – our profound common understandings as a community – originates in the Cult, in the community and in sharing.

The basic concepts of intellectual property law arose in the 18th century out of the technological and social individualisation of cultural production. The US Constitution enshrines both copyright and patent. The economic rationale is undeniable (the rapid development of an industry of creation) but today is increasingly at odds with the mashing traditions of cultural production.

Digital copying has reduced the technological barriers to copyright infringement at precisely the time when the media and celebrity industries have sought to expand into the new global space of common understanding with films, music and games.

The "Media Entertainment Complex" is militantly increasing the scope and duration of copyright and patent to such an extent that the normal methods and traditions of cultural production are threatened. The Disney Corporation, which has benefited hugely from remixing and mashing-up the folk tales of traditional cultures, is one of the most politically active in trying to stop anyone, ever, doing the same with its own cultural output.

Intellectual property not only moulds culture, it is itself part of our culture, and we can change the rules.

cultural odyssey: from Homer, to Derek Walcott, to Disney Left: Homer's Odyssey book cover / Centre: painting by Derek Walcott for Omeros / Right: Disney's Hercules



iCommons is an organisation that has grown out of the Creative Commons movement. It aims to establish a global commons – a worldwide system that allows people to use the internet to collaborate and access knowledge without the restraints of traditional copyright law.


This year's iCommons summit entitled "Share the past, create the future" will take place on 23-25 June in Rio de Janeiro and will be structured around three major themes:

  • Tools. Developing effective, relevant tools to forward creativity and innovation.
  • Policy. Strategies to ensure international, regional and local policy conducive to the development of the commons.
  • Practice. Learning from the experience of others to develop effective models for open content worldwide.


Speakers at this year's summit include author Lawrence Lessig, internet entrepreneur Joi Ito, academic James Boyle and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.


For members of the iCommons board, click here.


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